Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick
FARMINGTON’S REIGN AS VAN BUREN’S LEADING CITY
When Farmington posted 1,002 persons in the 1890 census, it was the first village in county history to reach the coveted 1,000 plateau in population. In that year Keosauqua had counted 831, Bonaparte 762, and Milton 643. Keosauqua, Farmington, Milton and Bonaparte all competed for the title of largest village, but Farmington was victorious for six decades. Since 1940, Keosauqua has held the undisputed honor.
Farmington had also led the villages in population during territorial days. When Van Buren became one of Wisconsin Territory’s counties in 1836, Farmington was named the county seat because it was the only village of any consequence on this frontier. As surveyors came through in 1837, they noted 23 villages within the county. Farmington was largest with an estimated 150 inhabitants. Although the U.S. Census of 1850 reveals Keosauqua with a population of 704 compared to Farmington’s 585, Farmington had been the largest village until Iowa gained statehood in 1846.
During this first reign as the leading city, Farmington was noted throughout the territory as a political hub. Religion entered heavily into the arena when party lines were drawn between the Whigs and Democrats in 1842, and the Democrats were labeled as the "infidel party." Farmington was a warmly contested political battle ground referred to as The Republic of Farmington, and developed a catchy slogan, "as goes Farmington, so goes the county of Van Buren; so goes Van Buren, so goes Iowa!"
Close proximity to the Mississippi River enabled Farmington to establish itself as an important river transportation town in those territorial days, but lack of an adequate water supply impaired its growth as a great industrial city, in spite of its river location. Railroad terminals at Keokuk, Ft. Madison, and Burlington brought growth at a much faster pace because of abundant water for industry. By the time Farmington secured the railroad it could not compete with these larger, established urban areas.
However, when Farmington secured a second railroad it made a comeback and began to flourish as Van Buren’s leading railroad center. Small industries quickly sprang up in Farmington creating plenty of jobs, and the town prospered and grew, reaching the highest population of any village in Van Buren County history, amassing 1,332 residents by 1900 and reaching 1,342 in 1905.
The town was a leading manufacturer of clothing. The Stirling Brothers came from Scotland and originated the Stirling Woolen Mills in 1888, in two large buildings. Among their manufactured woolen fabrics was one with inch-wide black and white stripes that was used to suit prisoners at Ft. Madison. Clothing manufactured from the woolen goods was also produced in a large pants factory.
In 1909, Coulter and Beeson opened a new clothing factory in Farmington with 32 sewing machines and a beginning force of 15 employees. Busy from the start, the Glasgow Woolen Mills of Des Moines gave the firm a work contract worth $10,000 at the beginning of their operation. Local stores displayed Farmington-made clothing and many other locally manufactured products.
Mining was an important industry, both in terms of limestone and coal. In 1866, there was an attempt to drill for oil near Farmington, but the experiment produced only a small gusher.
The King family began producing wagons in 1858. Mr. Burg came to town and became a competitor in 1862. In addition to wagons, he manufactured many types of carriages and buggies and by 1874 expanded his operation to three buildings. He sold harness, saddles, halters, whips, horse blankets and accessories, and had a repair shop as well.
At one time you could buy almost anything in Farmington, so merchants claimed. "The fact is Farmington is so attractive that when one lives here for a short time he is dissatisfied anywhere else. With all the good things we have to present we are not ashamed to ask people to come here to trade, as well as to make their homes, for all of the future of this world, and then Farmington is a good town in which to die and go to heaven."--as taken from an October 28, 1909 newspaper clipping.
Although it is no longer the hub of either the county or state, we should never underestimate Farmington’s important role in the history and development of our area.
Contributed to the Van Buren Co. IAGenWeb Project by Andy Reddick